Saturday, March 13, 2010


As a way of causing death with the hope of not being found out, poisoning seems to have been quite popular in Ancient Athens as it has in many subsequent eras. It was also likely to be suspected in any situation where the cause of death was not clear. This is so in a case where we don’t have the principal names.

Here a young man, who has waited till he is of age to speak in the courts, accuses his stepmother of having contrived the death of his father several years earlier. It appears his father had a lodger, Philomenos, who had a concubine, a slave, who was worried that he had gone off her and would sell her into a brothel. 

The stepmother sympathised and said she too was losing the affections of her husband. A love potion was suggested as the answer to both problems and the concubine was persuaded to give it to the two men in a drink at a dinner well away from the house. 

Francesco Hayez Ulysses at the court of Alcinoo , 1814-16, oil on canvas 380 x 580 cm. Naples, National Gallery of Capodimonte

However, rather than splitting the potion equally, she gave more to Philomenos. He died on the spot, she was immediately suspected, tortured to the point of confession and executed. The father fell ill and died twenty days later. Believing he had been poisoned, he asked his young son to pursue his killer, which he was now doing some years later, using the speech by Antiphon which is our only record.

If the stepmother is guilty, then it was quite a neat piece of work. Her accomplice is dead, having confessed to the poisoning of Philomenos only, possibly because the father, not yet being dead, the officials had not put that question to her during the torturing. 

The accuser brings no evidence of the confession anyway, nor of his stepmother having access to poison nor from the doctor who treated the father that the symptoms were those of poison rather than, say, food poisoning. 

His only hope of a stronger case (and the stepmother’s only danger) is that one or more of the household slaves might have known of the plot and revealed it under torture – for a slave’s testimony was admissible in court only if given after torture. 

Women of Athens
But his stepbrother, who it would seem has control of the estate, has refused this request. Understandable really, for who wants their property (slaves) damaged by torture whatever confession might result – and who doesn’t confess if tortured enough? 

Result: not enough evidence to support his case and she gets away with it, unless the large jury of citizen males is swayed by the fear that Athenian men seem to have had that their wives will betray them. Perhaps that is why he refers to his stepmother as ‘a Clytemnestra’, the queen who murdered her husband Agamemnon. We have no record of the actual verdict.

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